Five takeaways from the Munich Security Conference

Five takeaways from the Munich Security Conference

Note from Berlin


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The world is in need of leadership on the global stage – but in Munich, no leaders were in sight.

The 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) took place this past weekend. The yearly meeting brings together statesmen and women with security and defence experts to try and bring order to an uncertain world – or at least help make sense of it. They achieved neither.

A world searching for leadership

This year it seems there are enough crises and conflicts for three Munich Security Conferences. The world is in need of leadership on the global stage – but in Munich, no leaders were in sight. Partly, this was caused by the current uncertainty in German politics. But it was the lack of US leadership that was most palpable throughout the weekend.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis attended, but he did not make a speech, nor did he give interviews, while those US officials who did speak underlined other countries’ responsibilities, such as Presidential National Security Advisor H.R McMaster who noted that “we must all share responsibility”, as “international peace and prosperity depends on all nations”.

The conference produced far more questions than answers, and, as it went on, more and more accusations. Israel blamed Iran, Iran blamed Israel, the US blamed Russia, Turkey blamed the Kurds. All the while nuclear arsenals are being modernised, new weapons are being developed, and angry tweets are being sent.

Many statesmen brought props to make their point, with Benjamin Netanyahu waving a piece of an Iranian drone, Petro Poroshenko bringing an EU flag, and Japanese Foreign Minister Tarō Kōno showing photographs of North Korean tankers. These provided the attending journalists with good pictures but did little to further dialogue.

European defence, where art thou?

At the beginning of the conference on Friday, it seemed that Europe might provide the missing leadership. The conference was opened by German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her French counterpart, Florence Parly. This was noteworthy in itself, as last year’s MSC had been opened by the German and the US Defence Ministers.  

But it quickly became clear that the Europeans are not ready to fill the void that the US’s turn away from the international system is creating. Both ministers underlined the importance of Europe – “We want to remain transatlantic, but we also want to become more European” (von der Leyen); “Europe is not a nice to have, it is a must” (Florence Parly) – but these were statements of intent more than fact.

Germany is struggling to even guarantee its own defence, and despite talk of unity, the ministers’ speeches highlighted continuing divisions in EU priorities, with von der Leyen emphasising development, and Parly speaking of the need for a common strategic culture.

As the MSC’s Head of Policy and Analysis put it poignantly “To many in Munich, the US increasingly looks like a rudderless ship, and Europeans mostly offer analyses rather than strategies.”

European defence was supposed to be one of the main topics of this MSC, as demonstrated by the various publications distributed at the conference venue. But after the initial statements, the enthusiasm quickly subsided – the afternoon panel discussion on “Defence Cooperation in the EU and NATO” was sparsely attended.

In addition, Theresa May’s Brexit speech on Saturday morning highlighted Europe’s internal struggles. Reaching out to the European Union, May called for a security treaty between the UK and the EU, but the fundamental question of the future relationship between the union and the soon-to-be-former member remains. A more united European defence could be the answer to some challenges, but so far Europe does not seem up to the task.

Tech is scary. And cool.

Technology was a theme that ran through the conference. ‘Sophia’ the robot opened a debate on Artificial Intelligence in conflict. The co-founder of big data firm Palantir, Alexander Karp, discussed how to use Silicon Valley’s innovations for European defence, and Human Rights Watch’s Mary Wareham warned of killer robots. The panels featured much expertise, but the overall impression was one of confusion on whether to welcome these technological advances or not, and on how to regulate them.

It’s all about the bilaterals

It is an MSC truism: “The main event is what is happening  behind the scenes”. But one needs to attend MSC to understand just how true that is. It must be the only conference where the audience shrinks when the UN General Secretary takes the stage.

The absent delegates were not out sightseeing in the cold and sleet, but rather busy with hundreds of ‘bilaterals’ – unofficial and sometimes secretive meetings between delegations. So far, the world has not been informed of any new deals emerging from these discussions, but it is possible that new policies or arrangements have been set in motion this weekend in Munich.

A long way to diversity

It is another MSC truism that the typical MSC conference attendee is white, male, and rather old. This is not only the fault of the organisers (though I could have provided them with a long list of women that should have been invited), but a consequence of the fact that the higher up one goes, the less diversity there is in the field of international security.

It was welcome, therefore, that the conference was opened by two women, while Austria’s 31-year-old chancellor Sebastian Kurz did his best to lower the average age. But while programmes such as the Munich Young Leaders are aiming to improve diversity, more could and should be done, especially as the current group is clearly struggling to identify solutions to current challenges.

“I hope you have all come here to present policy proposals, to listen … and to build trust”, Wolfgang Ischinger said in his opening remarks. It appears that little of this took place this year in Munich. Given the current global security situation, this is cause for serious concern.

Read more on: Note from Berlin,European Power,New European Security Initiative

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